In the latest saga of misguided attacks on “critical race theory,” a group of educators was tasked with recommending curriculum changes to the Texas State Board of Education suggested to describe American slavery to social science classes of the second degree as ‘involuntary relocation’. If the teachers who suggested such a formulation thought they were improving the curriculum, they should know that they are doing the opposite. To portray slavery as simply “involuntary relocation” is not only reductionist, but it is also a blatant attempt to whitewash American history that ignores the terror and cruelty of slavery.
To portray slavery as simply “involuntary relocation” ignores the terror and cruelty of slavery.
The task force made its recommendation months after Texas passed SB 3, which requires teachers to discuss “controversial issues” to “explore that subject objectively and in a manner that is free from political bias.” That same law also states that a teacher may not define “slavery and racism” as “anything but deviation from, betrayal, or failure to adhere to the authentic tenets of the United States. ” Still, the task force’s recommendation to call slavery anything other than slavery has not been well received. The state council president said in a statement Thursday that the council had instructed the task force to reconsider that particular language.
Slavery in the United States was much more than “involuntary relocation.” As Kidada Williamsassociate professor of history at Wayne State University, explained“Slavery in its most basic terms was an economic and labor system aimed at maximizing wealth in the production of cash crops, extraction of natural resources, or the use of domestic or urban workers.” Unlike other forms of unfree labor throughout history, including slavery in West and Central Africa and indentured labor in Europe, slavery in the United States — known as “chattel slavery” — kept black people and their descendants alive for life. in slavery. For slavers, the economic gain from the enslavement of property was a higher priority than the actual well-being of enslaved black people. As a result, enslaved people had no social, political or economic rights. For example, they were not allowed to own property, acquire literacy skills, and develop any form of independent economic power.
The experience of slavery was cruel – and well documented in the historical record. To maximize wealth, slave traders tried to strip the enslaved people of their humanity and freedom of choice. And, as historian Jacqueline Jones explained in “Labor of love, labor of sorrow”, slaves “extracted as much labor as possible” through unrelenting terror and violence. Although enslaved people actively opposed slavery and devised a series of survival strategies, the violence, pain and trauma of these experiences cannot be overstated.
“Work, work, work” is how Hannah Davidson, a formerly enslaved black woman interviewed in 1937 as part of the Works Progress Administration’s “Slave Narratives,” described her life of slavery. “I was so exhausted from working, I was like an inchworm crawling along a rod. I worked until I thought another lick would kill me.
Forced relocation was indeed part of slavery. Not only did slave traders bring captive Africans to America, but they were enslaved families in the United States can be torn apart in the blink of an eye, and it was common for enslaved children to be sold by slaves at will—without regard for the emotional and psychological trauma associated with such separations. Charles Ball talked about the constant fear of being separated from his family in “Story of the life and adventures of Charles Ball, a black man” (1836). This reality was compounded by the social conditions on the plantation, which prompted Ball to consider committing suicide. “What is life worth”, he asked“in the midst of hunger, nakedness, and excessive toil, under the constantly raised whip?”
In “Incidents in the life of a slave girl” (1861), Harriet Jacobs, who was sexually harassed by her slave, stated emphatically: “Slavery is terrible for men; but it is much more terrible for women.” In addition to the physical, economic and social challenges associated with slavery, enslaved women faced additional burdens related to motherhood, childbirth, sexual exploitation and sexual harassment.
Students—and all Americans, for that matter—need to know exactly what slavery was and what it wasn’t.
Although Texas law last year passed that slavery should be taught as a departure from the founding of America, UCLA scholar Kyle T. Mays emphasized in “An Afro-Indigenous History of the United Statesthat “the foundations of the United States, its present power and wealth, were built on enslaved African labor and the dispossession of indigenous land.” These realities cannot be sugared.
Students—and all Americans, for that matter—need to know exactly what slavery was and what it wasn’t. Second graders deserve to know the truth about the nature of slavery, and hiding this truth only causes more damage. Relegating a violent, exploitative and dehumanizing practice to “involuntary relocation” can appease those who value feelings over facts. But it grossly distorts the historical record.